Category Archives: screwy syntax

“He grew up with an alcoholic dad and a mother who was almost never home, until the age of eight when they both died.”

At last a student who can spell “mother,” and chooses to; but lo and behold, he can’t think of the word “father,” evidently. Does he intend to suggest that the subject of his sentence (alas, I have forgotten whom my student is writing about, and a hasty Google for “writer” and “alcoholic father” brings up an amazing number of possibilities!) was closer to his father than to his mother? Or possibly my student himself is closer to his father than to his mother. Certainly the use of an intimate term for the he-parent and a formal term for the she-parent raises this possibility. For the famous author in question, we can then picture dear old Dad lolling around the house in an alcoholic stupor but accessible to Sonny, and Mother out of the house day and night, a virtual stranger.

The tale is sad with or without the possible parental preference. But the sentence is sadder still.

The boy grew up until the age of eight. That’s what the sentence says. What he did thereafter is left for us to imagine. Did he arrest his development, remaining intellectually or emotionally eight years old for the rest of his life? We have to assume his physical growth was not arrested: even the death of both parents isn’t trauma sufficient to achieve such a corporal result. Probably he continued to grow up, but where and how are not addressed.

And WHO was at the age of eight, come to think of it? A comma sits there in the sentence but is being asked to do more than it is capable of (possibly too young also?). I know my student hoped the comma would enable the reader to see that parents died when the BOY was eight; but the nouns preceding “until the age of eight” are “dad” and “mother,” not “boy” (he). The reader is therefore free to assume that the parents died at the age of eight. If they were parents at the age of eight, I’d say they had every right to drink, or to wander around the neighborhood. Without the comma the sentence would have to be read to say that the mother was “almost never home until the age of eight,” and she would therefore certainly be a little kid, with a husband probably about the same age. My student flings in that comma like a tiny life-preserver for his sentence—but it doesn’t really look like a life-preserver, being only part of a circle, and I’m not sure I can let it succeed.

To be fair, I must admit that “until the age of eight” is an adverbial prepositional phrase (answers “when” about the verb) and therefore properly modifies “grew up”; thus the boy is eight when his parents die. Of course I knew what he meant, and his grammar actually means that too.

But the word order distracts my perfect parsing—”grew up” is SO far away from “until the age of eight,” and the verb phrase “was never home” is just itching to be modified by the phrase that follows it.  And “when they both died” clearly does refer to “dad and “mother,” and “age of eight” comes right after “mother” and therefore seems to modify her as well. A reader encountering this sentence for the first time is fully justified in getting lost in it, and imagining little kids (one a wino) parenting (!) somebody who actually grows up; he will walk beside their tiny coffins and then get on with his life.

Thursdays are always confusing: so near to, and yet so far from, the weekend.


“The Green Knight is obviously immortal…”

What is it about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that lures unwitting students into language tangles?

In an earlier post on this poem, I included a link to the text. Briefly, though: King Arthur and the good people of Camelot are celebrating the Christmas/Yule holiday. Arthur says he never likes to sit down to eat until he has heard a good story or seen a good trick. Right on cue, enter the Green Knight— a man green of garb and green of skin and hair, mounted on a horse caparisoned in green—to challenge Arthur to a game of exchanged blows. Unwilling that his uncle and king take such a risk, and perhaps eager to begin to build a reputation, young Sir Gawain steps forward to accept. His task: to attempt to chop off the head of the Knight. The exchange: in a year and a day he will present himself at the Green Chapel so the Green Knight can attempt to chop off his head. Gawain swings the axe, and the Knight’s head goes rolling across the room. Said Knight strolls over and picks up his head, which speaks to confirm the later appointment. A year later, Gawain does manage to find his way to the Green Chapel (adventures, risks, temptations, another game of exchanges, etc., as appropriate) and present his neck for severing. As a grade-school book-reviewer would say, “To find out how it ends, read the book!”

Anyway. My student here begins her sentence credibly, although calling the Green Knight’s immortality “obvious” is dependent on what happens after he appears: his immortality is demonstrated, not visible.

But, as is so often the case when I present a Horror with ellipses, there is more to come:

“The Green Knight is obviously immortal, having survived a decapitation and his green complexion.”

I think I knew what she meant: he survives decapitation, making him evidently immortal, and his skin is green, suggesting that he is otherworldly, perhaps not mortal. But, luckily for a tired reader and a future blog, she didn’t write that, did she?

The “and” joins equal elements; here, it joins two direct objects (decapitation, complexion) of the verb “survive.” So the Green Knight survives decapitation AND he survives a green complexion.

Perhaps that’s not such an unusual idea to occur to a young woman just emerging from her teens. Adolescence is a difficult time for most of us, and a cruel time for many. A bad complexion can be a real social handicap for boys and girls alike—the “eeeeuuuuww” factor is powerful. We talk about kids “surviving” their adolescence, or “surviving” high school: why not talk about people “surviving” their complexions?

I remember seeing on “late-night” television, years ago when I was still pretty young, the 1948 movie The Boy with the Green Hair. Very little of it remains in my actual memory, except that the hair was meant to single him out so he could become a voice against war but the townspeople either shunned or attacked him and he had to run away. Wikipedia gives a more comprehensive description of the film here. I’m tempted to look for it; it sounds more interesting than my young self could have understood. But for the purposes of a discussion of Sir Gawain, what’s significant is that the boy had a really hard time after his hair turned green, so we can imagine how hard having green skin—less removable, certainly!—would be.

Feel free to sing a few lines of Kermit’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green” here.

If you can survive being green in a world of people whose skins are various shades of brown ranging from ivory to ebony, you can probably survive anything. And if you can survive anything, that would make you, um, immortal.


“…just homicidal rage…”

“Just” can mean moral, righteous, legitimate, according with the principles of justice: “Then conquer we must When our cause it is just,” one of the “other” verses of the “Star Spangled Banner” asserts (I’m very fond of the “when” in that line, and really resent hearing some people sing “for” instead, implying that our cause is always and of course just and therefore our victory is certain, whereas the actual line suggests that in those cases when our cause is just, we must conquer—but that’s all irrelevant here! so back we go…). It can mean this as an adjective, so that in the student phrase it describes homicidal rage as legitimate.

“Just” can also mean merely, simply, only: “It was just my imagination,” “She was just seventeen.” It can mean this as an adverb, so that the student phrase is referring to “merely” homicidal rage, suggesting that homicidal rage is a trivial thing.

I’m afraid the full sentence makes clear that the student meant the latter:

“Whether or not the intent was self-defense or just homicidal rage, the United States judicial system will try to give fair trials.”

In this sentence self-defense is a far worse intent than homicidal rage.

And that’s not the only problem here. We have the extraneous “or not”: since the sentence goes on to give an alternative to self-defense, the writer need not supply another alternative (not). In fact the presence of the “not” complicates the actual alternatives: now we have “whether the intent was self-defense or homicidal rage, or was not self-defense or homicidal rage.” Does that mean we have to look for additional possible intents if we are to understand the sentence’s own intention?

I suspect that behind this particular error lurks a well-intentioned teacher. I too try to give my students patterns or rules-of-thumb or generalized prohibitions where I see frequent problems and believe that a “rules” explanation won’t work for the students: for example, rather than go through the grammatical principles and identities that govern the use of “due to,” I advise “If you never write ‘due to’ you’ll never use it wrong.” I got so tired of sloppy use of “different than” instead of the correct-and-still-preferred “different from” (U.S. usage) that I had a whole class chant “different from, different from, different from”—and then got a paper written by a careful student wherein this sentence proudly sat: “She adored him, but what he felt for her was completely different from.” This and similar instances of professorial inability to imagine how wrong a simple directive can go lead me to imagine a teacher somewhere in this student’s past trying to break a habit of writing things like “I don’t know whether it’s going to rain” by saying “If you have no alternative, you have to say ‘if’; only if you do provide an alternative, or want to imply an alternative, say ‘whether.’ So it’s “whether or!’ ‘whether or!”” If that phantom teacher did exist, I can imagine my student writing “Whether or” to begin this sentence, and then hearing Phantom Teacher in his mind and faithfully adding a “not,” oblivious to the alternative he already plans to provide later in the sentence.

Then we have the fuzzy referent for “the intent.” Perhaps it’s time to tell students not to begin sentences with anything other than the main subject-verb cluster: even though their writing would become impossibly boring, at least the reader would no longer be confronted with these detached or disassociated introductory elements. If only he had added “the killer’s” before “intent,” I wouldn’t have been left pondering the possible relationship between judicial system and homicidal rage. The student has not actually made a grammatical link between the two, but he has left me no other possibility for a link. This isn’t Latin we’re writing in, after all: we don’t have the ablative absolute, that construction that allowed Julius Caesar to write “the enemy being slaughtered, Caesar had a nap” (or some such thing) without implying that J.C. had slaughtered the entire enemy all by himself. Caesar wouldn’t have fallen so gently asleep had the enemy not been slaughtered, but although the two events or conditions are linked, they are not linked by the accomplishing agent. Well, we don’t have that structure in English, so I’m left wondering what the judicial system, or the judicial system’s trying to give fair trials, has to do with the motives offered in the introductory adverbial clause.

Last is the double use of “try.” I have had students tell me they knew they were using the same word in two different ways in the same sentence but they couldn’t think of any other way to say what they meant. This may be so. But if it is, then they should be doing some vocabulary-building, or at least reading their sentences over after having written them. Since “try” can mean “attempt” or “put on trial,” the doubling is particularly confusing here—the judicial system does try cases, so the innocent reader (and doesn’t THAT little dual-purpose adjective complicate matters in this legal sentence!) may expect a direct object after “try” rather than the infinitive “to give” that actually is the object of the verb. So on first reading the expectation might be (and in fact might more reasonably be, for the sake of relating that adverbial clause) “Whether the intent was self-defense or homicidal rage, the United States judicial system will try the case.” But no: they’re going to try to give trials. The reader has to back up and re-read in order to accommodate “trials” by re-defining “try.”

Well, I’m glad my student believes in the good faith of the U.S. judicial system: courts make the effort to be fair to both self-defenders and homicidal maniacs. Their open-mindedness seems to extend even to the question of which motive is the more culpable, despite the existence of a criminal code that already has done that. While the statement may not go on to observe that we live in a great country, it does imply that we live in a well-meaning one.


“The sexuality in this show creates men to become everything but a gentlemen.”

This is another condemnation of The Jersey Shore, from an essay assignment on “reality television.”

I knew what she meant. You know what she meant. Why was it so hard to say?

I’m glad there is no number disagreement between “men” and “a gentlemen”…except, of course, for the “a” part.

Moving on: Most of us understand that sexuality, or at least the mobilization of sexuality, has been known to “create men” in the long term—it begins by creating teeny little embryos, but eventually some of them do become men (others become women). But halfway through the sentence, where she had seemed to be merely announcing the obvious my student decides to use “creates” as interchangeable with “causes” and forges blithely ahead to reveal what the men will become.

“Everything but a gentlemen” leaves way too many possibilities open, if that’s what she really wants to say. After all, it’s unlikely that the producers of The Jersey Shore are thinking about gentlemen in any way, shape, or form. But assuming the term is somehow relevant here, the “everything but…gentlemen” might include thugs, animals, predators, rapists, louts, drooling idiots, and pigs, and I think that’s what she has in mind. But it also might include fathers, priests, scholars, dancers, football players, accountants, politicians, and poets, any of which choices might, in various ways, be influenced by sexuality. AND it might include cabbages, motels, planets, tornadoes, and stock markets—any of which MIGHT be thought of in relation to sexuality—including the cabbages, which would fall into the category of “sexuality comma, lack of interest in.” And where would these infinite possibilities get us?

She intends the “everything but” to do the job of “anything but,” which sounds a lot like it but which is commonly used to mean “far from it!”

One more thing: “sexuality”? The first definition is “the condition of having sex”—note, not “the activity of having sex.” By that definition, sexuality means “being of a sex,” as in male or female. The second definition is “sexual activity,” and that’s the one my student means. But since the word can carry two rather different ideas, she should have just said “the sexual activity on the show”—or, maybe closer to her actual thought, “the single-minded pursuit of sexual engagement on the show,” or “the obsession with screwing anything that moves.”

“The single-minded pursuit of sexual engagement on the show makes animals, or indeed anything but gentlemen, of the male characters.”

Clearer. But nowhere near as dizzyingly funny.